ExtensionEngine Blog

5 Baseline Expectations We Must Have for Online Learning

Goldie Blumenstyk’s recent column, “Online Learning Is Misunderstood. Here’s How,in The Chronicle of Higher Education, raises compelling issues about online learning.

In the column, Blumenstyk reported responses to a question she asked at the Minnesota eLearning Summit: “What do the professionals who work in the trenches wish their colleagues knew about online education?”

The answers pointed to the need for online higher education programs to allow for more robust and diverse learning communities, as well as the need to equip faculty with the skills to develop and teach online curriculum (or to teach in any environment, for that matter).

But I think that the answers overlooked the biggest misunderstanding of all: Most institutions of higher learning are missing the boat when it comes to achieving the full potential of online learning.

In the past, a large proportion of online courses were simple transfers of classroom materials and methods into an online environment. Assign the reading, add a video lecture (or worse, a text lecture), ask some discussion questions to be answered in an asynchronous forum, follow up with a multiple-choice assessment — and you’ve created a course. This is starting to change, but too many programs still conform to this mold.

It takes hard work and expertise to do this well, and I don’t want to take away from that, but I think there is much more we can and should expect from online learning experiences.

Here are five baseline expectations we should have for online learning:

1. Put your learners first.

All online learning should be learner-centric. It’s traditional to design a course from the top down, where a subject matter expert determines what the learner needs to know, then creates material to impart it. But those traditional higher education models often neglect to look at learning from the learner’s point of view, to ask, “Where is the learner now? How will they interact with this learning opportunity? What kind of experience will be most suitable for them? How will they apply what they’ve learned in a real situation?”

2. Anticipate learner variability.

Learner variability means that what works for one learner might miss the mark for another. Instructional design teams can now take into account learner variability in ways that were not possible before. 

It can be challenging to accommodate learner variability in the classroom, but when we intentionally seek to understand variability prior to designing a digital learning experience, we can use technology to help align the experience more closely with each learner’s needs, interests, and preferences.

3. Create an active experience for your learners.

Instead of passive, lecture-based learning, we should use technology to improve online learning by engaging students with hands-on, project-based approaches that build community and improve learner engagement. Few people learn well in isolation, with most learning more effectively through social interaction with others. One of the major affordances of technology is connecting people across different schedules, time zones, and devices.

And in most cases, learners begin an experience with a purpose or goal in mind. Creating opportunities for learners to develop artifacts of the learning that are grounded in the real world strengthens that learning. It also boosts engagement by establishing clear connections to those goals and links to authentic applications of the learning.

4. Give your faculty a variety of roles.

Online course delivery offers interesting opportunities for faculty involvement beyond lecture delivery and paper grading. Consider the science instructor who can now design interactions where students can drag and drop atoms to build complete molecules. Or the business professor who can design powerful “what-if” scenarios that respond to student input. Or the music professor who can reveal annotated sections of written music in synch with a recorded performance — or provide the means for students to annotate them as an exercise.

Beyond instructional materials, faculty can focus on interacting with students in meaningful ways outside the classroom and be available to answer questions and give guidance. With new technologies, faculty participation in learning can be more varied, creative, and valuable.

5. Have a plan for continual improvement.

One of the initial steps in any online learning project should be developing a plan for making it better. Allow for the fact that the first time something launches, it is the worst it will ever be. It’s essential to have a plan in place to gather data and prepare a strategy for the next version. Good can become great, and great can become world-class.


I don’t think that online learning has reached the pinnacle of its achievement. We have not even met baseline expectations. Now that we know how to build platforms that deliver adaptive learning, complex simulations, and continuous learner support, we are finally ready to see what online learning can do.

But institutions of higher learning have to think beyond this. As great a leap as online learning has made, we can fully expect it to continue to evolve. Today’s great online program is likely to find itself behind the curve tomorrow if there is no blueprint for taking advantage of unfolding advancements in learning technology and learning science. It’s critical for institutions of higher learning to strategize for their own evolution as well.

Keep learning:  At the 2018 Eduventures Summit in Boston, a panel of representatives from Harvard Business School (HBX),ArtCenter College of Design, Moravian College, and ExtensionEngine discussed the following tenet:

In a crowded market, higher ed institutions should create online learning that is differentiated, conforms to their core pedagogy, and delivers great learner experience.